Yucatan With a Twist

Campeche is an often-overlooked gem

By: Maxine Cass

CAMPECHE CITY, Mexico The fiery red disk of the sun touched the Gulf of Mexico’s horizon as it set off the western side of the Yucatan Peninsula. The sight was enough to make tourists and Campechanos smile joggers slowed to a halt and lovers kissed. Campeche City’s 17th-century stone walls turned from gray to gold.

These walls owe their existence to residents’ need for protection after ferocious pirates repeatedly pillaged the town between 1559 and 1685. The buccaneers arrived by land, not by sea, and plundered, not for gold or silver, but for palo de tinte, wood used to dye the clothes of European aristocrats.

Stone walls linked by small fortresses and bastions (baluartes) rise 26 feet on the land side and 18 feet where the water’s edge used to be, creating the largest intact defensive city wall in the New World. These walls that surround the Campeche State capital’s historic center, along with 1,600 brightly painted, restored Colonial-era building facades, were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. Three times a week, a Spanish soldier leads visitors up to the top of the city walls by fiery torchlight for a Sound and Light show.

During the day, near the stark cathedral on the central Plaza de la Revolucion, clients can board the 100-year-old El Guapo trolley or its brother, Super Guapo, for a 40-minute Colonial City tour that includes a portion of the waterfront walkway (malecon).

In a great example of re-use, most of the sentry towers and fortresses are museums. The 1684 Baluarte San Carlos, once a prison and armory, is the Campeche City Museum, complete with Spanish armor and pirate exhibits. Baluarte de Santiago, from 1704, houses the Xmuch Haltún Botanical Garden. Baluarte de la Soledad displays Mayan steles, the carved stone slabs that declared a ruler’s accomplishments.

Up a hill, with a narrow, curving entrance to slow attackers, Fuerte San Miguel preserves 19 cannons on its battlements. At ground level, a Mayan archeological museum shows priceless pre-Mayan statues from offshore Jaina Island and Campeche’s most famous symbol, jade masks from Mayan Calakmul.

Before pirates inspired coastal wall-building in Campeche City, Mayans lived along the coast and inland jungles for a thousand years.

Calakmul, deep in the jungle near the Guatemala border, was a bloody rival of Tikal. Most of Calakmul’s ruins spread over 42 square miles, still buried by vines and tree roots. Visitors climb to the top of the Structure II pyramid, as it’s called, once home and later a tomb for the most powerful ruler, Jaguar Paw, for a view over a vast carpet of jungle. Here blue morpho butterflies flutter by, and orchids and epiphytes (air plants) hang at every turn of the white limestone path around the site.

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, Calakmul is also a Biosphere Reserve and protects the largest population of jaguars north of Panama, among other species of wildlife.

Near Calakmul are other Mayan sites, like Becan, with another pyramid and a mask of the sun god protected under glass, or Chicanna, where a huge snake’s mouth with teeth along a temple wall conjures up the Mayan underworld.

Just east of Calakmul, Xpuhil’s towers look like a crumbling Babylon. At Balamku, west of Calakmul, visitors can see a 55-foot-long frieze carved with two earth monsters, a jaguar and other animals. And 35 miles from Campeche City at Edzna is a five-level pyramid to climb, and masks of the Mayan sun god as a young man and in old age.

Between are uncounted mounds of other sites, spread around villages where people swing in hammocks, surrounded by mango trees, and exuberant flowering bougainvillea, tingeing blossoms with gold as the sun sets.

Campeche State Department of Tourism



Where to Stay

The Hacienda Puerta Campeche, a member of Starwood’s Luxury Collection, is located near Campeche City’s Land Gate. The unique hotel has 15 rooms that were each originally individual 17th-century houses. Each air-conditioned room has access to the interior courtyard and facilities, which include two bars, a restaurant, a pool and a 24-hour business center.

Rooms range from $159-$392 per night.

800-325-3589, 52-981-816-7535


Hotel Plaza Campeche is a neat, economical alternative, with a friendly staff and good access to the historic city. Book rooms above street level for security and less noise.

Nine single rooms are available for $60 per night, 58 double rooms are $70 per night and 15 junior suites are $80.



For Calakmul-bound travelers, a stay in one of Chicanná Ecovillage’s 32 bungalows can make for a rustic but comfortable jungle stay.

Clients should climb the two-story observation tower at sunset to watch hundreds of colorful birds settling into the jungle canopy for the night. Rates range from $100 to $120 per night.